Slave Labor, Melville’s Rebellion, and Captain Delano’s Journal

Linda Braune in New Politics:

La-la-ca-0110-greg-grandin-158-jpg-20140115In his newest book, historian Greg Grandin provides background to Herman Melville’s classic Benito Cereno, an 1855 short novel about a slave rebellion. Reflecting on this story written almost two centuries ago, Grandin opens up space for further research by those investigating the Black Atlantic. Melville’s novel told the story of a concerned and liberal sea captain, Amasa Delano, who boarded the slave ship San Dominick and encountered a deferential slave, Babo, caring for his slave master who had taken ill. Delano was moved by the humble slave’s concern for his master, the ship’s captain. Not until the end of that day does Delano realize that he had been deceived and that the slaves on the San Dominick had revolted and had actually taken charge. Babo was not a deferential slave, solicitous toward his sick master, but rather was the revolt’s ringleader! When Delano discovers the true circumstances, he directs his armed team of sailors to round up the rebels, and a fight ensues. The Melville narrative is extraordinary, ironic, and liberatory, and Grandin’s book provides some remarkable background material to the novel. Benito Cereno had been based on actual events recorded in the non-fictional Delano’s 1817 journal. Grandin provides a context for grasping this late eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century revolutionary era, reflecting a whole period of slave rebellion. However, three special contributions by Grandin deserve explication here: his emphasis on the Muslim influence on the slaves, the brutality of the free-enterprise seal-hunting industry, and the harsh march of slaves over the Andes.

First, one of Grandin’s striking contributions is his situating the real and the fictional Amasa Delano, and fictional Babo, within a revolutionary history and alerting his readers to the Muslim background of many West African slaves. Grandin reports that “some estimate as many as 10 percent” of over twelve million African slaves taken to America were Muslims (195). Grandin shows us, in fact, that when Protestant Delano meets Babo, he is possibly not confronted with a Christian slave, but a Muslim one, a Muslim brother of those who rose up and fought for a decade to acquire Haitian independence in 1804.

More here. (Note: At least one post will be dedicated to honor Black History Month throughout February)